Roughly a month after bishops announced proposals for how same-sex weddings and gay clergy should be handled, Methodists gathered in Wichita said they were hopeful their church will find a resolution to conflicts over sexuality.
“We’re discerning the shape of how we will live out our Christian faith in the future,” said Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. at a listening session that began the Wichita conference for Kansas and Nebraska Methodists.
Later he joked, “Someone once said wherever there are two Methodists there are three opinions.”
The debate over sexuality has consumed energy and resources for decades, said the Rev. Andrew Conard, preacher at First United Methodist Church of El Dorado. He hopes the church will come to a resolution in February, choosing from three plans created by the Commission on a Way Forward.
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“It’s important work and I’m glad we’re having the conversation that we are, but I’m hopeful that we can go on to whatever’s next,” Conard said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move the conversation forward across our denomination and within our local churches in such a way that we can get back to sharing God’s love with people that don’t know Jesus.”
The One Church Plan, which a majority of bishops recommended, would allow individual churches, conferences and pastors to decide whether to ordain gay and lesbian clergy and offer same-sex marriages. It would remove language in the Book of Discipline (the denomination’s governing document) that says the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching,” but would also protect pastors and conferences who “due to their theological convictions cannot perform same-sex weddings or ordain self-avowed practicing homosexuals.”
The Traditional Plan would maintain the current ban on ordaining “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy and performing same-sex weddings. This plan would also strengthen enforcement for violations of those laws.
The Connectional-Conference Plan would create three conferences, abolishing the five existing U.S. jurisdictions. Each conference would decide its own adaptations of the Book of Discipline. If they disagree with their conference, churches could vote to join another.
The Rev. Amy Lippoldt, pastor at Basehor United Methodist Church, passed out buttons in the conference supporting the One Church Plan.
“I really believe it’s the best way forward for the United Methodist Church as a whole in the United States and globally. I feel like it’s the one viable option for our intractable conflict over the rights of LGBTQ people,” Lippoldt said. “We’ve been fighting in a really overt way about the rights of LGBTQ people for 40 years. Keeping things status quo is not going to help us thrive as a church.”
Lippoldt said she had many good conversations about the plans during the week. Some people are uncertain, others have their minds made up. She will be a general conference delegate voting at the February meeting in St. Louis.
For some of the Methodists gathered in Wichita, the conference was their first detailed exposure to the plans. For others, it was a chance to grapple with issues they’ve considered for years.
Saenz said many Methodists have questions about the plans and want to know what happens next — a question he can’t answer.
At the same time, waiting isn’t hard, he said.
“I’m glad we’ve had this time to pause and think deeply about what our next step would be,” Saenz said. “It’s a gift. We can all discern who we are as Christians and as United Methodists and then figure out how we are being faithful moving into the future.”
Saenz has formed a Forward in Unity Process Team to compile resources and lead discussions about sexuality. He has plans to visit each of the Great Plains’ 17 districts in the fall to discuss the Way Forward plans.
“Admittedly, there is great anxiety across the church and in the world,” Saenz wrote in May, after the plans were announced. “Still, I am profoundly hopeful about the future of The United Methodist Church at such a time as this amid swirling uncertainties and rapid change.”
Oliver Green, a member of a Methodist church in Topeka, will lead the team from the Great Plains Conference to the February meeting in St. Louis where the denomination is expected to make decisions on the plans.
It’s going to be a “very complicated” conference, Green said, with many different opinions. He supports the bishops' recommendation of the One Church Plan, although he also points out that full details haven't been released.
Full details of the plans are expected by July 8.
Green said he hopes people won’t focus only on these controversial issues, but rather on how to do ministry.
“Whatever happens in February in St. Louis, we’ll still be ministering here in Kansas and Nebraska, so how do we do that?” Green said. “How do we live out the Wesleyan way in Kansas and Nebraska?”